Donald Trump’s 9/11 story and its influence on his freewheeling White House bid

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Donald Trump speaks outside the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 18, 2001. (Photo: Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Like many Americans, Donald Trump was watching television when it happened.

It was a little before 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the New York real estate mogul had just turned on NBC’s “Today” show to watch a friend, Jack Welch, the former chairman and chief executive of General Electric, give an interview about his new book. But suddenly, coverage was interrupted by a shaky shot of the north tower of the World Trade Center, its steel façade rent by a jagged gash that was pouring ominous puffs of dark black smoke and flames.

As he later recalled to talk show host Larry King and others, Trump, a native New Yorker and developer who had spent his entire life around the Manhattan skyline, was flabbergasted.

“I’m saying, ‘What’s this?’ … You knew it couldn’t be the boiler. That’s down in the basement,” Trump told King in 2010. “You know, you’re saying, ‘What is this? What could be possibly this?’”

By his account, Trump, who was at home in his 66th-floor penthouse at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, turned to a south-facing window that offered majestic views of the Empire State Building, in which he owned a stake at the time, and beyond it, the Twin Towers. From four miles away, he could see firsthand the black smoke from the north tower trailing slowly up into the clear blue sky. It was around 9 a.m.

As the television behind him narrated the frantic moments at the scene, including witness accounts that a plane had hit the building, Trump stared in shock toward lower Manhattan, trying to understand what had happened. In subsequent interviews, including with the Daily Mail last year, he would recall that moment, how he thought he saw something in his peripheral vision, perhaps a shadow over the Hudson River. He couldn’t say for sure, but suddenly, as he stared at the Twin Towers, the buildings were engulfed in a massive fireball. Behind him, stunned television anchors confirmed the unbelievable: a second plane had hit.

Speaking to King in 2004, Trump recalled thinking, “Now you know what it is.”

Every American of a certain age remembers where they were and what they were doing the moment they learned of what would be the worst terrorist attack on American soil, a strike that left nearly 3,000 people dead in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania. And Trump, who was by then established as one of the larger than life personalities of New York, is no different.

Like other New Yorkers, he watched it play out not just on television, but right in front of him. The city was bearing the physical and emotional burden of an attack so unbelievable that national security officials later described it as a failure of the imagination, as no one had envisioned terrorists attacking landmarks with planes in such a coordinated way.

Fifteen years later, Trump’s experience of that day is now part of what shapes his unlikely campaign for the presidency. During his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and now as the nominee, Trump often invokes memories of 9/11 as he campaigns on a pledge to keep America safe — insisting there needs to be new immigration safeguards to prevent people like the 9/11 hijackers from entering the country.

At the same time, Trump’s recollection of 9/11 seems to include what he described as in his bestselling book “The Art of the Deal” as “truthful hyperbole” — which he defined as a little bit of exaggeration. Or so it seems.

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 23, 2015. (Photo: Jay LaPrete/Reuters)

At a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio, last November, Trump told an audience that he could see people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center from his vantage point at Trump Tower. “I watched people jumping off the building,” he declared to a crowd of 14,000 people who sat rapt in silence. “How would you like to be 102 stories up, and your choice is to burn or jump? Many people jumped. I witnessed that. I watched that.”

Explaining to supporters about the direct view he had from his apartment, Trump added, “I watched as people jumped, and I watched as the second plane came in. And I was watching television when the first plane hit. … I saw the second plane come in, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable.’”

The Trump campaign declined to say at the time how the candidate could see people jumping from the building from four miles away — or if he was simply blending memories of watching what was unfolding in front of him with what he was seeing on television.

His team has also declined to say if Trump knew anyone who was killed in the attacks — though the candidate has repeatedly said he knew “numerous people” who died at the World Trade Center. At a Republican primary debate in South Carolina in February, Trump mentioned unnamed friends who had been killed as he argued that former President George W. Bush hadn’t kept the nation safe during his time in the White House.

“I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe,” Trump said, prompting boos from the crowd.

At the same time, Trump has been forced to defend other recollections of that day, including his claim at a rally in Alabama last November that he saw television footage on 9/11 of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks.

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering,” he said.

Trump pushed back on questions about whether he had mistaken footage of Muslims in the Middle East celebrating the attacks as footage from the U.S. “It did happen,” Trump insisted of American Muslims allegedly cheering the attack from New Jersey. After 9/11, Both the Washington Post and Associated Press cited “rumors” of celebrations, but so far none have been substantiated. And Trump hasn’t repeated the claim in months.

Through a spokeswoman, Trump declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a concern about appearing too political on a day in which he and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton have pledged to refrain from campaigning.

The GOP candidate has also occasionally spoken of how he tried to help during the days following the attacks — though it’s not entirely clear exactly what he did, and his campaign declined to comment on how he spent the early days after the attacks. But Trump, who owns a building on Wall Street just blocks from the World Trade Center site, did go down to check on his property and employees there, according to what he later told reporters.

On September 13, he made his way to Ground Zero, where news accounts say he met with police officers and firefighters. Afterward, against the backdrop of smoke still rising from the smoldering site, the businessman gave an interview to a German television reporter about what he had witnessed.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, the devastation, the human life that’s been just wasted for no reason whatsoever. It is a terrible scene,” said Trump, who wore a business suit in the interview, his hair a bit disheveled. In the interview, he said he had brought employees down to the site to help. “We have over 100 and another 125 coming,” he said, while offering no details on what they were doing.

At an April campaign rally in Buffalo ahead of the New York primary, Trump expounded on his memory of that time, telling supporters how he “helped” at Ground Zero. “Everyone who helped clear the rubble. And I was there, and I watched, and I helped a little bit,” he said. “But I want to tell you: Those people were amazing. Clearing the rubble. Trying to find additional lives. You didn’t know what was going to come down on all of us, and they handled it.”

Trump also retrieved memories of the terror attack in order to bludgeon GOP rival Sen. Ted Cruz, who accused Trump of embodying “New York values.” Cruz was referring to the cosmopolitan social values of Manhattan, but Trump, speaking during a primary debate, invoked the “smell of death” in the air as New Yorkers united after the towers came down. “We rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched,” he said.

What is clear about Trump in the aftermath of 9/11 is that the developer, known for his brash style and personality, seemed to try to offer a voice of reason to the debate over how to handle what was then sacred land. He argued against redeveloping too quickly, saying time was needed not just for the city to heal but to consider what would be best for the neighborhood around the site.

But he also broke with friends, including then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who suggested early on that the land should remain empty in honor of the victims. Trump argued that not to rebuild something in its place would be a victory for the terrorists.

“We have to rebuild in some form that is just as majestic,” Trump said in the German television interview.

Trump, who in the early moments of his 1980s heyday once publicly mused about buying the World Trade Center, later admitted he didn’t love the buildings so much. The architecture wasn’t beautiful, and the complex, which he felt cut off the development from the surrounding neighborhood, felt “cold,” he told reporters.

But staring south from his windows at Trump Tower toward the World Trade Center site, which remained engulfed in smoke for months after 9/11, the developer admitted he felt sad looking at the skyline, that the attacks had taken something away that he had never appreciated in the way that he should have.

“It’s like you lose somebody that you love. You never loved them that much, but you lose them, and all of a sudden, you love,” Trump told King in 2010. “Everybody loved the World Trade Center after it was gone.”

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